In Memoriam: John O. ‘Dubby’ Wynne, a ‘Force’ for UVA as Rector

October 31, 2023
Headshot of John Wynne

Former Rector John O. “Dubby” Wynne, who died Thursday, led UVA’s Board of Visitors from 2009 to 2011. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

University of Virginia history will link former Rector John O. “Dubby” Wynne, who died Thursday at age 78, with the hiring of Teresa A. Sullivan as the first female president of the University.

As rector – the chair of UVA’s governing Board of Visitors – he led the search committee that identified and recruited the University’s eighth president.

But it almost didn’t happen.

Late in the search process, a representative of the firm assisting in the search called Sullivan, who was then the provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at the University of Michigan, to ask if she would accept the position if it were offered.

“I told them no,” she recalled Friday from Austin, Texas, where she is on sabbatical. “They would not discuss the budget with me. I was afraid they were hiding something.”

Two hours later, a phone appointment with Wynne and Leonard W. Sandridge, then UVA’s executive vice president and chief operating officer, popped up on her calendar. 

“He was a person who was a force, in the best sense of the word.”

— Leonard W. Sandridge, former executive vice president and chief operating officer.

She took the call, and Wynne and Sandridge – who, she recalled, had believed UVA’s financial health was readily apparent – offered to answer any budget questions Sullivan had. Over the next two hours, she peppered them with every question she could think of. They answered them all.

Reassured, Sullivan was ready to accept the job.

A lawyer by training, Wynne rose to prominence as a media executive, then became a tireless volunteer. His business acumen, his detailed knowledge of the nuts and bolts of higher education and his absolute dedication to whatever role he took on are some of the traits for which is remembered.

“He was a person who was a force, in the best sense of the word,” Sandridge said. “He made things happen. There was nothing too big to tackle.”

A Norfolk native, Wynne attended Norfolk Academy and then Princeton University, where in 1967 he earned a bachelor’s degree in U.S. and modern European history. He went on to graduate from UVA’s School of Law in 1971, after taking a year off to serve in the National Guard.

He was an attorney for Willcox & Savage before leaving to work for Norfolk-based Landmark Communications in 1974. He rose through the corporate ranks there, developing a close relationship with Landmark CEO Frank Batten Sr., who Wynne’s obituary describes as “the most influential person in his life, challenging and mentoring him, sharing his values and commitment to service and helping others.”

“He was, as they say, plugged in.”

— Teresa A. Sullivan, president emerita.

Wynne was the driving force behind Landmark’s 1982 founding of The Weather Channel, which many saw as folly at the time. In 2008, he led its sale to NBC Universal for a reported $3.5 billion. He was inducted into the Cable Hall of Fame in 2016.

Wynne went on to become Landmark’s president and CEO, retiring in 2001. 

He didn’t rest on his laurels, however. Already a tireless volunteer, he redoubled his public service efforts, which focused on economic development, both in the Hampton Roads region and statewide, and on education. 

The list of Wynne’s involvements is extensive, and he held leadership positions in many of them. Among those are the state’s Council on Virginia’s Future; the Virginia Business Council; GO Virginia, a state-backed, statewide economic development organization; the Virginia Business Higher Education Council; the State Council on Higher Education for Virginia; and the Governor’s Commission on Higher Education Reform, Innovation and Investment.

“The University of Virginia was really just a small fraction of the things he was involved with,” Sullivan said. “He was the consummate volunteer. That was great for the University, to have someone who had such wide networks. He was, as they say, plugged in.”

Sandridge agreed, saying Wynne “was interested in seeing those various elements work together” for the good of the state.

When then-Virginia Gov. Mark Warner appointed Wynne to UVA’s Board of Visitors in 2003, Wynne had already served as a charter trustee on Princeton’s Board of Trustees for 14 years. That experience proved vital to his eight years on UVA’s board, including two years as vice rector and two as rector.

“He came into the rectorship knowing how it was done in the big leagues,” Sullivan said.

At UVA, Wynne often moved behind the scenes. He worked with his mentor, Batten, on the 2007 $100 million gift to the University that established the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, Sandridge noted. He was instrumental in the implementation of the Access UVA financial aid program that began under the tenure of former President John T. Casteen III. 

“He was focused and no-nonsense, but also kind.”

— Susan G. Harris, secretary to the Board of Visitors.

Susan G. Harris, secretary to the Board of Visitors, said it was Wynne “who did all of the heavy lifting” in the conversion of the University of Virginia Investment Management Company, or UVIMCO, into an independent, nonprofit entity to manage the University’s endowment – a move that allowed it to hire top investment managers.

“He didn’t get hung up in trying to take credit for what he accomplished,” Sandridge said. “He got satisfaction from seeing it completed.”

Wynne’s term as rector, which ran from 2009 to 2011, came just as the economy was shakily emerging from a recession. 

“That was a time when most boards were very concerned about where higher education was going and whether they should pull out of things,” Sandridge said. “Dubby was a steady hand at the time. He did not overreact. He was confident in the position of the University – that we could thrive, and not just survive.”

Many recall Wynne as having high standards, focused on metrics and measuring progress, recalled Harris.

“He was focused and no-nonsense, but also kind,” she said. “We had a good working relationship.”

Wynne’s most public role in the University community came as the head of the search committee that recruited Sullivan. Once she had been reassured about the budget and agreed to come to Grounds, Wynne worked closely with her and kept her updated on University issues during the transition.

“He was also pretty systematic about introducing me to the history of the University,” Sullivan said, recalling lunches in Virginia Beach in which he introduced her to former Rector Josh Darden and Frank Batten’s widow, Jane Batten.

Wynne’s networks came in handy when Virginia’s governorship switched parties in 2010 and Democrat Tim Kaine, who had reappointed Wynne to the Board of Visitors in 2007, was replaced by Republican Bob McDonnell, whom Wynne had supported.

“I think he did a good job in keeping us connected with Richmond at a time when Richmond was in transition, something I could not have done because I didn’t know all of the players. He did,” Sullivan said. 

Wynne is survived by his wife of 50 years, Susan Stribling Snodgrass Wynne; sons John Jr. and Brad; two daughters-in-law; and six grandchildren. Another son, Lee, died in 1984 of leukemia at age 6.

Funeral services will be held Friday at noon at Galilee Episcopal Church in Virginia Beach.

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